A teenager who spent two cold, wet nights lost in the dense, Southeast Alaska rainforest is home and safe in Port Protection thanks to dozens of volunteer and professional searchers. Makayla McRoberts says she was dehydrated and scraped up but otherwise OK when one of the search parties eventually found her in the woods. During her ordeal, Makayla thought a lot about books she’s read where teenagers faced similar predicaments. She says it helped keep her going. Her family says “Thank You” is not enough to express their gratitude to all those involved in the search effort. They told their story to KFSK’s Matt Lichtenstein:
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13-year old Makayla McRoberts was out hiking on a Sunday and got turned around on her way home from a nearby lake.
“So I thought I was walking the right way at first, but then things started looking less and less and less familiar. Pretty soon I was completely lost. No idea where I was. So I kept walking the way I thought port protection was. Turns out it was the opposite way,” she says.
That evening, Makayla’s aunt, Terri Metcalf, got worried. She was at their home in Port Protection, a remote, roadless fishing village of about 50 people on northwest Prince of Wales Island. Makayla hadn’t shown up for dinner as planned. Friends and family soon started looking for her and after a couple hours, Metcalf called authorities.
“The first call I made was to the coast guard. They’re our saviors. So once we got them going, the guy stayed on the line with me and we tried calling all sorts of trooper agencies because by then it was past eight O’Clock,” says Metcalf.
Trained search and rescue crews from larger communities would gear up and fly in via Coast Guard Helicopter in the morning.
Makayla walked for a long time that first night, making her way through the woods and trying to avoid the thick brush. At one point she followed a creek in the hopes that it would lead her to the beach.
“So I’m Just Walking towards the river bank, took a step and all of a sudden I plunged like up to my belly button in cold water and I just shot out of the river it was so cold. By then it was getting pretty dark so it hurt to walk in my blue jeans so I just took that off and my shirt was kind of wet too. So I took that off and I just had my jacket, my boots and my underclothes.”
Her jacket, which had fleece in it, still provided her with a little bit of warmth.
No one got any sleep that night back in Port Protection. Terri Metcalf says Makayla’s father Jim McRoberts and other local searchers were out the door again by 5 am. Metcalf worked the phone, helping to coordinate with the Coast Guard, troopers and incoming search and rescue crews. Eventually, according to Metcalf, every able-bodied person in the community as well as from nearby Point Baker was out searching the surrounding forest.
Metcalf says, “I heard at one time, in just the few minutes that I got the chance to go stand outside, 20 or 30 people out there calling her name.”
Snow blocked the nearby road system and bad weather delayed the incoming flights, So, Metcalf was tremendously relieved when she flagged in the first Coast Guard helicopter to land on the beach.
“Standing out there, seeing the helicopter come in was one of the most ecstatic moments of the initial beginning search because all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh yay! The angels have arrived.’ So they unloaded their people and it just consistent as fast as they could unload people, get more people get fueled up,” Metcalf says.
State troopers reported that 41 people and four search dog teams joined in the ground effort including volunteers from the Ketchikan and Klawok rescue squads as well as Sitka Mountain rescue. They divided up into smaller teams and combined trained searchers with local residents who knew the surrounding terrain. A National Guard helicopter out of Juneau also took part.
Still lost in the woods, Makayla says she slept a lot despite the wet, cold, windy weather and her lack of shelter and warm clothes.
“First day I just kept walking, but the second day I was pretty tired all the time. Like even just to walk a mile. Like I was so cold and wet I had no energy. So I’m like OK, I’ve walked a mile, this moss looks soft. I think I’ll sleep on that for a little bit. Got in the fetal position, took off my jacket and threw it over me. That way because it was kind of raining I didn’t want water touching me anymore. I was pretty mad at water,” She says.
It took a lot of effort to keep moving whenever she woke up, “I guess I woke up and my legs were so stiff. It was really hard to walk. Every once and a while I would just stop, even if it was only a couple steps and have to work my legs again because they didn’t want to work.”
On her second day out, Makayla heard a helicopter and scrambled to get to a clearing, “And I was running through the thickest brush. I was getting attacked by spruce and devil’s club to the point where my hand was all swollen with prickles and devil’s club needles and stuff. So I made it to the clearing but I’m like waiving down the helicopters and they passed right by me. Didn’t even see me. Couple minutes later, they passed right by me again. Didn’t even see me. I was so mad. I was like ‘Nooooo! Why, helicopter?!”
Makayla’s dark brown jacket didn’t help. It was like camouflage.
Makayla also happened to have been wearing a Harry Potter shirt. She likes books and as she pressed on through the forest, she drew inspiration from some of the young characters she’s read about.
“I was thinking about different about like different things throughout the time like there was this one Stephen King book where this girl a little younger than me got lost in the woods. Then there’s the ‘Hunger Games’ I was thinking about that cause I’m a book reader and I was hoping maybe this would save my life. And you know what? It pays off to be a nerd,” shae says.
Close to noon on Tuesday, when she was trying to sleep under a tree to block the wind, she heard a voice calling her name. It was her neighbor Leslie Fahey who was in one of the search parties with Makayla’s Dad, Jim.
They were about five miles from town and he says Fahey heard Makayla calling out, “Leslie took off through the brush and I had a radio in my hand and I got on there . I said, ‘this is team 44 and we got a female response for help and I’m pretty sure it’s her. ‘ I handed the radio off and I went barreling through the brush. I was hollering, ‘ where you guys at, where you at?’ I finally worked my way over there and I come crawling up over the edge and I saw Makayla there wet and cold and smiling, you know. I was like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” I just ran over to her and gave her a big hug and started crying and (was) just happy. Life is great.”
Back in Port Protection, Metcalf and other family members were just getting ready to head out with another search party when they heard the news.
“We were going ‘We’re so happy!’ The happy word doesn’t sound happy enough but that’s it. We were just so happy.”
Makayla and her father were flown to the hospital in Klawok, where she was treated for dehydration. Considering her ordeal, she was in relatively good shape. She says it felt great to get warm again.
Throughout those few days, well wishers from around the world sent Makayla’s family hopeful notes through social media. Terri Metcalf and Jim McRoberts struggle to find the right words to express their gratitude to the many people who helped search for the teen:
“Thank you isn’t enough. I so…..everyone…..Thankyou. That’s not enough.” says Metcalf
“I just kind of wish that I was here when everybody was leaving to thank them personally to give them a hug and shake their hands and tell them how much I appreciate what they did,” McRoberts says.
Now back at home Port Protection, Makayla says if she ever goes hiking again, she thinks she’ll maybe bring a lighter, a raincoat and a friend.